Developments in United States Sanctions Policy: Turning Over a New Leaf

BY BRETT MORITZ—The United States has made notable changes to their foreign policy in recent weeks. The relationship between the United States and Cuba has changed dramatically with the recent decision to normalize diplomatic relations. This dramatic reversal comes after months of progressive thawing. Also, the United States has recently engaged Iran in high-level talks to halt Iran’s nuclear weapon capability. President Obama and his team, lead by Secretary of State John Kerry, recently reached an agreement with Iran to stop the potential development of nuclear weaponry. It is now up to Congress to decide if such a deal, including the lifting of sanctions, will be approved.

The UN, EU, and other individual countries imposed Iran’s sanctions in 2002 after Iran’s nuclear program became public. Congress has been reluctant to allow such a deal between the United States and Iran where Iran would see its sanctions instantly revoked. Senators have even introduced a bill that seeks to impose more economic sanctions. This may just be a negotiating tactic, but it shows the increased tension inside the United States government. The possibility of removal of sanctions against these two foreign nations perhaps might be the recognition of the futility of economic sanctions.

Economic sanctions against a foreign nation avoid a physical war, while at the same time forcing the country to alter its undesired behavior because of a weakened economy. The legality of economic sanctions is well documented, with the Charter of the United Nations specifically stating that the Security Council can impose sanctions under certain circumstances. The United States administers its sanctions through the Departments of State and Treasury. In fact, the United States issued over 500 cases of sanctions in the 1990s alone. However, the overwhelming majority of the international academic community believes that economic sanctions are a resounding failure. There is little change in the behavior of sanctioned nations, and the brunt of the sanction is often brought to bear upon those who can least afford it–civilians. Even the Red Cross has come forward to point out the ill-intended effects of economic sanctions.

The failure of economic sanctions is most evident when the sanctioning nation revokes the sanctions. Thus, it seems that the United States’ sanctions against Cuba and Iran have been a failure, as the process has begun to revoke them. Very few in the political establishment, however, are willing to admit to policy failure. Regardless, the Cuban population looks onto this new relationship with growing hope for the improvement of their lives. The influx of American tourists would certainly provide a boon to the Cuban tourism economy.

The Cuban residents of Miami, however, have not met the decision of the United States government with the same enthusiasm. In fact, the reaction has been much more mixed, with some residents stating that the United States government has given into the Castro regime. Even the United States Representative, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, stated that the way to lift the embargo is for Cuba to institute free and fair elections as well as releasing their political prisoners.

Proponents of easing sanctions, however, stated what many academics have come to believe–that the Cuban people were the real victims of the embargo. The leaders will take what is available and leave the people to fend for themselves. But economic sanctions may continue in one form or another because of their symbolic nature. If the desired effect of sanctions is not a change in the sanctioned government’s behavior, then there is no reason to believe that the United States or the United Nations will stop using economic sanctions.

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